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It Wants to Go to Bed with Us


“What does it mean?????????????” John Ashbery wrote more than fifty years ago in The Tennis Court Oath, his second book of poems. The very exuberance of the punctuation may have sounded a note of caution for any readers who were looking for quick answers. (Perhaps thirteen question marks were an unlucky omen.) Since then, though, his work has been translated into twenty-five languages, and many would claim that a typical Ashbery poem speaks twenty-five languages. Even the poet has cast quizzical side-glances at his perplexing career. “I tell myself it all seems like fun and will work out in the end,” he noted in 1987. “I expect I will be asked a question I can answer and then handed a big prize. They’re working on it.” Several big prizes later, as he approaches his ninetieth birthday, Ashbery is still working on “it,” still wondering what “it” is. In 2006, when New York’s city council declared April 7 John Ashbery Day, the poet couldn’t resist asking: “But what does a John Ashbery Day mean? Are people going to stop and pause and think for a minute?”

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teaches English at Keble College, Oxford. He is finishing a book entitled Wordsworth’s Fun. His article “Supping on Horrors” appeared in the October 2016 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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